Story of First Steam Boats On The Mississippi, by Howard M. Brown, Carleton Place Canadian, 31 May 1962

One of the newer features of the Carleton Place area is the growth of its Vacationland of the Mississippi during the past few years.

It is a growth recorded in increases in numbers of summer homes bordering the Mississippi Lakes, and in the larger numbers of summer visitors seen each year on the township roads to lakeside sections and on the streets and in the stores of Carleton Place.

The multiplying numbers of boats on the lakes and the river tell the same story.  There now are probably larger numbers of motor-propelled craft afloat here in an average summer day than could be seen in the course of a year a generation ago.  Between this recent change in the face of the lakes and the countless years of the birch bark canoes of the Indians, there lies a time of little more than a hundred and twenty five years during which these local waterways have been used for transportation, for supplying food and water and water power, and for recreation.

The record of this intervening time since the beginning of agricultural settlement and commerce shows that the use of steam powered engines on these waters began with the development of the region’s lumbering industries.  It may be surprising to recall that the days of the steamboat lasted as long on our Mississippi as has the period of boats with gasoline engines.  Throughout the same times sailboats, canoes and rowing skiffs have been used in varying numbers and types.  Other water craft of such contrasting kinds as commercial barges and rowing shells for racing are now locally things of the past, as are the odd sailing catamarans at one time in limited vogue.

Steamboats of Romantic Names

Steamboats of romantic names and impressive size, most of them locally built, operated between Carleton Place and Innisville from the eighteen sixties to the nineteen twenties.  While serving mainly for industrial towing and incidentally for pleasure excursions, several of the larger ones were designed for paying their way by the carrying of passengers and goods.  That aim was attained only briefly, if at all, even in a time when summer roads remained bad and automobiles and trucks did not exist.

The first steamboat on the Canadian Mississippi was launched in the year of national confederation.  It was built here by John Craigie, who had opened a riverside shingle mill producing for the United States market with machinery of his own invention.  His boat, like the last steamer to be built and used here, was given the name of the river.  An announcement of August, 1867, said, “The little steamer Mississippi is now making regular trips between Carleton Place and Innisville, carrying freight and passengers.  Excursion parties desirous of seeing the lakes, or fishing, shooting ducks, gathering berries, etcetera, can have the use of the boat at reasonable charges.”

A larger steamboat was wanted for the ambitious plans of the Mississippi Navigation Company, incorporated two years later with an authorized capitalization of $100,000 to build locks at Innisville and Fergusons Falls and transport commodities expected to include sawn lumber and iron ore for rail shipment at Carleton Place.  Headed by James H. Dixon of Peterborough, the company’s local directors included Abraham Code, M.P.P., then of Innisville, John Craigie, Robert Bell and Robert Crampton.  The new steamer, the Enterprise, built here by John Craigie for the short lived navigation company, was launched in October, 1869.  James Poole, secretary treasurer of the company, said in May, 1870, in his Carleton Place Herald:

“The steamer Enterprise has now made several successful trips between Carleton Place and Ennisville.  We have not had time or opportunity, owing to the demolition of our old building and the erection of new premises, to avail ourselves of the pleasure.  We notice also several packages of freight leaving the steamer.  We believe that our spirited member, Mr. Code, is sending his manufactured cloth to Montreal by steamer via Carleton Place.  Soon also picnics and other social gatherings will be the order of the day.  When the locks at Ennisville and Fergusons Falls are built the property of our beautiful village will be a fixed fact.” 

The navigation scheme collapsed and in the spring of 1872 the Enterprise, in a neglected state of repair, was sold by auction.  The Enterprise operated on the lakes and river in the service of the lumber industry under the ownership of Peter McLaren and the Canada Lumber Company for about twenty-five years.  It was made available throughout those growing years of the town as an excursion steamer for many summer and social activities.

Other towing and excursion steamers were added on the lakes in the eighteen seventies and eighties.  Among them were the Witch Of The Wave, The Morning Star, the 43 foot Ripple, and the 30 foot Mayflower.  In the eighteen nineties there were added the Commodore, which was to see many years of service, the big 80 foot shallow draft paddle wheeler the Carleton, and the Lake Park hotel’s 40 foot Lillian B.  Smaller private steamboats included the Nellie, the Four Macs, the Lizzie, the Reta and the Carmelita.  After 1900, with several of the oldest steamboats no longer in use, the Nichols’ 26 foot tug, the Belle, was launched in 1903 and Mr. S. Cooke’s larger Mississippi in 1905.  The hulls and engines of both were built in Carleton Place by the John Gillies Estate Company, as were those of the lake’s largest steamboat, the Carleton.

Carleton Place Boat Builders

The leading Carleton Place builders of skiffs and other small boats of superior quality, starting in the eighteen seventies and continuing his individual craftsmanship for fifty years, was Adam Dunlop.  The John Gillies Boat Works, which began operating here in the eighteen eighties as a branch of the Gillies machine and engine manufacturing plant, produced boat engines and marine craft for national distribution for about twenty-five years.  The company’s master boat builder, J. S. Ferguson, before coming here already had taken exhibition prizes awarded at Quebec City and London, England, for boats of such variety as a thirty foot racing shell weighing only thirty four pounds and a Gaspe fishing boat.

For the Gillies firm Mr. J. S. Ferguson directed the making of vessels ranging from paddle wheeled steamboats to standard types of gasoline launches, and large and luxurious cabin boats finished in fine woods for shipment to such places as the St. Lawrence’s Thousand Islands, Montreal and western Canada.  At the time of the company’s plant fire of 1906 it had some twenty or more employees.  When this Gillies business was closed after the death of James Gillies, Frank Walton, former Gillies boat builder for many years, continued to build hulls for gasoline launches and other boats at Carleton Place.

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